Today on The Mighty, there’s a story about people’s misguided perceptions of sensory overload. Mandy Farmer, the post author, describes several situations involving her son that are well-known to me. Though I’ve come to tolerate a grocery store, I still cover my ears when the music in a store is too loud. I still fidget and, though I don’t (usually) scream, I still react with frustration at my hair being cut. I still don’t attend many social events, because I find a baby’s crying or loud music or even lots of conversation overwhelming.
Overwhelming, exactly. But you see just behavior. I’ve actually had some nurses tell me that “this is behavior”. Duh! Every single action a person exhibits is behavior. You mean it is willful misbehavior, but 1. you don’t say so (this is my literal-mindedness acting up) and 2. I don’t think that it is.
People often see sensory overload as attention-seeking, as depriving the noise-making people of the right to make noise. *Yes, I’ve seriously been accused of that!) At best, like Farmer also seems to connote, they see it as anxiety, and anxiety is to be overcome with exposure.
I once, many years ago, read a description of what it is like to live with autism. The description of the sensory experience went something like this: imagine noise at the highest volume blasting in your ears, insects crawling under your skin, and bright lights shining in your eyes at the same time, while you’re having to eat the hottest type of peppers and the smell of rotten meat penetrates your skin. I bet those last two weren’t in there, but sensory overload affects all five senses. Now imagine not being able to escape any of these sensory experiences. Imagine what it’d be like having this experience 24/7. You’d go freakin’ nuts!
Sensory overload doesn’t always involve a cognitive appraisal of the sensory stimulation, like: “I don’t think people should be playing loud music.” It doesn’t even always involve fear-related appraisals, like: “This noise is a threat, I feel like it will damage my ears.” When it does involve these types of cognitive processes, we aren’t always aware of them. Older children and adults can learn to become aware of what is going on in their minds and register any fearful or angry thoughts they may have towards the sensory stimulus. Then they can begin to learn to adjust these thoughts. But when there are no such thoughts, or when the person is unaware of them, how will attributing their reactions to some type of willful behavior help them?
If noise were blasting at the loudest volume, bright lights were shining into your eyes, insects were crawling under your skin, etc., wouldn’t you feel pain? You would! Think of sensory overload as pain. And while cognitive and behavioral strategies can help people manage pain, attributing their pain-related behaviors to willfulness is not only insensitive, but ineffective as well.